A bishop with a harsh anti-LGBT record has prematurely resigned, creating an opportunity for his successor to heal wounds in the province related to gender and sexuality debates.
Canada’s Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary, Alberta, resigned due to health reasons, ending twenty years in office, with much controversy in recent years. Last year, Henry described Alberta’s new education guidelines aimed at protecting transgender students as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic.” He then refused to apologize, saying any retraction was “simply not going to happen.”
The bishop’s comments were offered amid wider debates in Alberta about Catholic education and LGBTQ supports that were, at times, quite heated. Indeed, Archbishop Richard W. Smith publicly thanked Henry upon news of his resignation for “the outstanding contribution he has made in the field of Catholic education in both Alberta and across the country,” according to Global News.
Pope Francis has now appointed Bishop William Terrence McGrattan as Henry’s successor in Calgary, reported CTV News. This transition has some LGBT advocates hopeful that a new page can be turned, while others remain skeptical of any change.
Kristopher Wells, director of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies, said Henry had been “no friend to the LGBT community” but hoped “a new bishop will seek to build bridges and use faith as a way to include rather than exclude.”
Kelly Ernst, executive director of the Calgary Outlink Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity agreed that Henry caused “whole lot of grief for a whole bunch of people, including gay youth.” According to the Calgary Herald, she, too, sees this moment as an opportunity:
“‘I’m really hoping that new bishop is open to dialogue with the LGBT community. One of the things Catholic LBGT and Catholic allies say is welcoming LGBT people into your lives and your communities is not in conflict with Catholic teachings.'”
Rebecca Sullivan, who directs the University of Calgary’s Women’s Studies Program was somewhat harsher in her assesesment, stating that “the grand old men of the Catholic Church are going quietly into the bleak night they created for themselves.” Yet, Sullivan thinks this resignation could signal “a brighter future for what Catholicism could stand for, not what Henry has stood for.” Another professor at the University of Calgary, Juliet Guichon, expressed the following:
“I hope that the incoming bishop engages with Catholics and the greater community and focuses on Pope Francis’ main messages, which are mercy, love and following one’s conscience.”
“‘I see no reason to believe that there will be any kind of change that substantively supports trans people in that particular faith. . .I see absolutely no statements from higher-ups suggesting that trans people are welcome in their faith.'”
There are no indications about how Bishop McGrattan will respond to LGBT issues in Alberta after his February installation. But he would be unwise to squander this opportunity to undo the harm Bishop Henry inflicted and to initiate a diocesan path more in keeping with Pope Francis’ model.
A first step could be apologizing for the harsh remarks Bishop Henry made last year, followed by concrete actions to show that the local church in Calgary will work to support LGBT people in parishes and in Catholic education. Let us pray for Bishop McGrattan and the local church in Calgary that they may find a new path forward in this new year.
–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 10, 2017
As of March 31st ,the 61 schools districts in Canada’s Alberta province submitted draft LGBTQ policies, including all government-funded Catholic schools. For months, the issue of drafting these policies has caused disputes, and even after this latest step there is not yet a visible resolution.
Alberta school districts were required to submit draft policies to the provincial government’s Education Ministry, which will now review them to ensure legal compliance. This ends a process that Minister David Eggen called “a very successful exercise,” but is likely not the end. All 17 Catholic districts submitted policies, though the policies’ contents, as well as some officials’ willingness to participate in the process, have varied. For example:
The Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education added protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression into existing statements.
St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Schools in Leduc remained silent about gender identity.
Fort McMurray Catholic Schools will require transgender students to use only gender neutral restrooms and private locker rooms.
Calgary Catholic Schools has yet to release its policy to the public, but Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry said if the Education Ministry refused to budge, “we’re going to end up in court,” according to a columnist in the
Eggen differed from Henry’s approach, reaffirming the Education Ministry’s commitment to finding resolutions which protect human rights while respecting “religious sensitivities.” He told the Calgary Herald:
“Transgender students, LGBTQ youth, will have the same rights and freedoms as any other child here in the province of Alberta. . . We’re not out to do anything but protect a very vulnerable group of students.”
Despite his desire for common ground, that has included a meeting with the bishops, Eggen and the Education Ministry can try to motivate districts’ compliance through funding cuts or the dissolution of school boards if necessary. Minister Eggen said all policies should be in place by the coming academic year.
The possibility of sanctions has arisen before. Bishop Henry’s comments about a lawsuit are but the latest incident from Catholic officials who have opposed these policies aimed at protecting LGBTQ students. Henry himself described LGBTQ guidelines released by the Education Ministry in January as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” writing a second letter in which he refused to apologize for these comments. Other bishops released their own letters of concern, though with far less hyperbole.
The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions around a transgender policy have repeatedly made headlines since last summer. Their meetings erupted into a “shouting match” last fall and the Board approved “just discrimination” of some youth in a draft policy last December.
As this process in Alberta ends one stage and begins another, it is worth noting the role Catholic education has played beyond simply being a battleground. This entire process began after a 7-year-old transgender student in Edmonton Catholic Schools sought restroom use consistent with her gender identity. While ecclesial and education officials’ reactions have been split about responding, it was Catholic education which kickstarted a province-wide conversation about sexuality and gender identity.
That conversation has now advanced, but is not over as it seems likely some Catholic districts’ policies will either not meet the legal requirements or be widely different from optional guidelines released in February. But whatever comes next, a question from a columnist in Metro Newsshould help all involved keep perspective:
“. . . [I]n the battle between civil rights and religious freedoms how many LGBTQ children will be collateral damage?”
Charged rhetoric and confrontation by Catholic officials has not prioritized students’ well-being to this point. Hopefully, Catholic bishops and school board members will come to see that protecting LGBTQ students is a vital part of Catholic education and not at odds with the schools’ missions. Otherwise, the process of developing LGBTQ-specific policies may continue for many months, and that would be a defeat for all.
Disputes about proposed transgender policies for Alberta’s Catholic schools have again escalated, as church officials, educators, and equality advocates all weigh in on new LGBTQ guidelines. The bishops are unified in their opposition to these guidelines, but many lay Catholic officials disagree.
Alberta’s Bishops Oppose Trans-Inclusive Policy
Three Canadian bishops joined Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary’s opposition to LGBTQ policy guidelines released by Alberta’s Ministry of Education, reported CBC.
Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith, who is in India currently, released a media statement about his opposition that criticized members of the Edmonton Catholic School Board, too. The archbishop wrote, as reported by CBCand Metro News, that some Board trustees “have caused harm and hostility” and “betrayed the trust placed in them by Catholic electors” by their actions and alleged failure to defend Catholic education.
It is unclear from his statement which trustees and which actions he criticized or if the criticism is for the trustees as a whole who have been incapable of working together. Smith did admit that certain LGBTQ guidelines were “constructive, thoughtful and reasonable suggestions” and, in certain cases, were already being implemented in the province’s Catholic schools.
Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan and Bishop Paul Terrio of St. Paul also spoke out, releasing separate pastoral letters on the issue. Both claimed church teaching disallows what they describe as self-identification for one’s gender, citing recent comments against gender theory by Pope Francis and the Synod on the Family. Allowing students to identify their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression “repudiates the goodness of Creation,” according to Terrio.
Bishop Henry previously said the guidelines were “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” and criticized gay-straight alliances for opposing homophobia and heterosexism. The bishops will meet with provincial Education Minister David Eggen next month.
The Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association weighed in against the guidelines as well, saying the schools were already “very safe and caring.”
Catholic Officials Reject Bishops’ Stance
Grassroots Catholics have reacted strongly against these episcopal assertions. Parents were displeased by Bishop Henry’s letter and a decision by the Edmonton Catholic School Board (ECSB) to distribute that letter widely. Michelle Comeau, who has two children in ECSB schools and is Catholic, told CBCthat the letter was “awful” and “embarrassing.” She added:
” ‘From what I can see with my kids and their friends, there’s no issue with them. It’s with the older people.’ “
Additionally, the mother (who asked not to be identified) of a trans girl whose human rights complaint prompted these school policy discussions, criticized the letter and its distribution, too. She told The Edmonton Sun:
” ‘This has nothing to do with the Catholic teachings. This has nothing to do with the Catholic faith. This is a scared man who is clearly anti-gay, anti-transgender, and anti-LGBTQ all together who doesn’t want processes changed. . .
” ‘He hasn’t been around a transgender person, obviously, and he hasn’t been around a transgender youth…you tell me that it’s as easy as pretending to be a bird when you have your seven-year-old child asking you to end her life.’ “
Marilyn Bergstra, who chairs ECSB, apologized to parents and others harmed by the Board’s circulation of that letter, according to The Edmonton Journal. She tweeted that it “never should have happened.” Trustee Patricia Grell voted against distributing Henry’s letter, telling The Edmonton Journal:
” ‘We have to follow the law. . .The law doesn’t care if it goes against our religion. Human rights will always trump religious rights and honestly, for me as a Catholic, trying to find a place for our transgender kids, our LGBTQ kids in general in our schools is very keeping with the gospel of Christ.’ “
An Edmonton priest, Fr. Stefano Penna, attacked Grell and others supportive of LGBTQ policies by comparing them to Nazis.
Jennifer Woo of the Calgary Catholic School District rejected Bishop Henry’s letter, saying the District’s schools would “continue to do what we’ve already been doing, and that is to build up communities where all of our students feel welcomed and respected” because Catholic teaching mandates love for all people and respect for their dignity. Other administrators in Calgary’s Catholic schools expressed similar sentiments, reported the Calgary Herald.
Educators and LGBT Advocates React
Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen weighed in, saying ECSB trustees should “sort themselves out and make sure they are doing the job that they are elected and paid to do,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press. Eggen said LGBTQ policies currently being considered by Alberta’s 61 school districts should reflect the spirit of the guidelines, as well as lining up with “the letter of the law.”
Calls for Eggen to dissolve the Edmonton Catholic School Board are mounting from parents, community members, and transgender advocates. The Education Minister said he is considering the move because he is “very concerned” about the well-being of the “many tens of thousands of children” the ECSB trustees oversee, according to Winnipeg Free Press. Commenting about the standoff with bishops, Eggen said school officials are “moving down a path here that is very unfortunate and it has very serious implications.”
Mark Ramsankar, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said this debate itself is harming school communities. Citing Bishop Henry’s comments specifically, Ramsankar said such “extreme rhetoric. . .would be laughable if they were not so hurtful.” Teachers seek to ensure classrooms are “safe and care places of learning for every student.” He also defended Catholic education in the province, saying it “served communities since before the province was created,” reported 660 News.
A new study of Canadian teachers out of the University of Winnipeg revealed 62% of educators in Catholic schools believe inclusive policies would be “very helpful” to students. But what is troubling in these findings by the “Every Teacher Project” is that, despite 99% of teachers saying it is important for students to have faculty with whom they can discuss LGBTQ issues, only 57% of educators in Catholic schools are comfortable being such a resource, reported Metro News.
An editorial in Medicine Hat News expressed sorrow about Bishop Henry’s letter and church leaders’ opposition to LGBTQ policies:
“It’s sad that such a declaration puts staff in the position where they might have to wrestle between what we know will definitely help students, and the words of higher church authorities.
“It’s sad, because the letter reinforces what many think Catholicism is — stagnant, close-minded, never willing to change for the better. It’s sad, because it reinforces the spiritual alienation many Catholics feel from the church they love and want to be a part of.
“The Bishop can talk about dignity and respecting each child — but it all rings hollow when he’d rather dig in his heels over the constitutional rights for Catholic education mixed with hyperbole over totalitarianism — instead of stepping over to the right side of history and to help vulnerable children not just survive, but thrive.”
The editorial said any solution will require creativity, compassion, and love which are not lacking in the Catholic community, even if church leaders fail to display such qualities. While its important to remember that the People of God support inclusivity, a Metro News column asked a sobering question about the bishops’ campaign:
“But in the battle between civil rights and religious freedoms how many LGBTQ children will be collateral damage?”
The bishops’ hyperbolic rhetoric does not prioritize students. It does not foster a preferential option for marginalized LGBTQ youth. While there are many complex legal, ecclesial, moral, pedagogical aspects involved in this controversy, the heart of this matter should be protecting students and promoting the best learning environments possible.
A controversy over a gay-straight alliance (GSA) bill in the legislative assembly of the Canadian province of Alberta has become a classic example of how Catholic leaders and lay people take different approaches to LGBT issues.
According to CBC.ca, Bill 10 was introduced by the province’s conservative political party “to counter a private member’s bill making gay-straight alliances mandatory in all schools.”
CTVNews.caprovided a succinct history of the complicated progress of the bill:
“In its original form, Bill 10 gave the final say for GSAs to the school boards and told students to go to court if they wanted to challenge it. [Alberta Premier Jim] Prentice said this was the best way to balance the rights of kids, schools and parents.
“When public outrage grew on social media and elsewhere, the Tories on Wednesday passed an amendment allowing the government to set up GSAs at unwilling schools, but with the option of putting the clubs off school grounds.
“Critics pounced on the amendment as institutionalized segregation of gays akin to ‘separate but equal’ Jim Crow laws used to debase African-Americans more than a generation ago.”
As a result of the political controversy the bill has been placed on hold by the Premier of the province to allow for further discussion and debate.
Alberta’s two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, already have 94 GSAs in schools, but the province has none in rural areas or in faith-based schools. In Canada, Catholic schools receive state funding, and so are affected by state education laws, though they are governed by local Catholic boards of trustees.
The local Catholic trustees seem to be split about Bill 10. The Edmonton Journal cited one trustee’s opinion:
“Tony Sykora, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association, said Catholic school boards provide a wide array of other initiatives and organizations to live up to the Education Act’s mandate to protect all students and believe the decision on gay-straight alliances should be left up to local trustees.”
But when the province’s Catholic school boards agreed to hold off on encouraging GSAs, some trustees and parents became angry. MetroNews.ca reported on the reaction of one of Edmonton Catholic Schools (ECS) trustees to the idea that “inclusive clubs” be instituted instead of GSAs:
“. . . [A]ccording to ECS trustee Patricia Grell, that’s not fair to the district’s LGBTQ students. . . .
“ ‘Appalled was the word that the majority of people used as a description,’ said Grell, referencing the reaction from the community about comments made by ECS board chair Debbie Engel to media about GSAs.
“Grell, who recently penned a blog post about the clubs, said the district needs to reconsider their stance on GSAs to consider what’s best for vulnerable students.
“ ‘I… learned that they are not sex groups or dating clubs but “identity clubs” for students who identify as LGBTQ and their straight friends,’ Grell wrote on her website.”
The two leading Catholic prelates of Alberta have weighed in on the bill, in separate letters, though both encouraged support of the measure. The bishops express concern for LGBT students, but oppose the idea of GSAs as the way to support youth. Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry stated:
“It enshrined parental rights, recognized the autonomy of local school boards and the students rights regarding diversity clubs without mandating Gay-Straight Alliances.”
Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith provided a similar message:
“We fully support the government’s laudable goal of fostering safe environments in schools. In fact, we already have policies for this very purpose. Any legislation aimed at this objective should demonstrate to all vulnerable students that they are embraced by the province’s concern.”
(You can read the full texts of the bishops’ letters by clicking here and scrolling to the end of the article.)
Yet, a recent poll of Alberta’s Catholics shows that lay people significantly disagree with the bishops’ position. The Edmonton Journal reported:
“. . . [T]he University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minorities Studies and Services released data from a Leger Marketing poll showing more than half of Alberta Catholics support allowing the alliances in schools.
“The online survey of 1,002 Albertans, conducted last week, found 18 per cent of Catholics were strongly opposed or opposed. Fifty-two per cent were in support or strongly in support. The poll numbers are considered accurate to within 6.5 percentage points 19 times out of 20.”
And one Catholic priest has spoken out against the bishops’ position, too. GlobalNews.careported:
“Calgary Reverend John Pentland said on Sunday that Bishop Henry’s comments are not helpful to Catholics who support GSAs and object to Bill 10.
“ ‘I’m sure it’s confusing for people, for friends, and our Catholic faith to have their leader say such a thing. I hope they use their own mind and conscience and let their [political representatives] know.’ ”
In the same article, Marni Panas, a transgender Catholic woman in Edmonton, was also quoted opposing the bishops’ stand:
“I’ve come to believe that when left to the people of my church, the ‘average’ Catholics, the true teachings of my faith will prevail.
“We do not need the ‘permission’ of certain leaders to be kind, welcoming, compassionate and loving.”
While this controversy still is not finished, there is already one “casualty” of the debate. The Edmonton Journalfollowed up with Trustee Grell, quoted above, about her support for GSAs. The article reported a new development:
“On Monday, she said she no longer wanted to speak publicly on the issue, worried about breaking rank with the archbishop. ‘I promised the archbishop I wouldn’t do this anymore,’ she said, citing canon law that gives him the authority to grant an educational institute the right to call themselves Catholic.”
Bondings 2.0 will keep you informed on further developments in this story.